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Labels Must Contain Accurate Information

Since the time of Shakespeare, people have been asking: “What’s in a name?” Two separate cases involving Smucker’s fruit spreads illustrate some of the issues involved in a product’s name. J.M. Smucker Co. was sued twice for deceptive trade practices because it named one of its products “Simply 100 Percent Fruit.”

Labeling Law

A law is now in effect that requires labels on supermarket packages of beef, veal, pork, lamb, fish, fruits, vegetables, and peanuts to show the country where they were produced.

Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) is a law that requires retailers, such as full-line grocery stores, supermarkets, and club warehouse stores, notify their customers with information regarding the source of certain foods. Food products, (covered commodities) contained in the law include muscle cut and ground meats: beef, veal, pork, lamb, goat, and chicken; wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish; fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables; peanuts, pecans, and macadamia nuts; and ginseng.

Federal and state laws set out standards that companies must follow when labeling their goods. And the laws generally cover all aspects of a label, including the name. Failure to follow the guidelines invites legal action.

No matter what the outcome, the Smucker’s cases should give companies pause when brainstorming for product names.

The first lawsuit was filed by a Wisconsin man under that state’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act. It claims that Smucker knew that “Simply 100 Percent Fruit” spreads are not what the name indicates. An analysis of the products by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest found the products contain less than 50 percent fruit. (The not-for-profit group filed an earlier complaint with the Food and Drug Administration.)

The second case was filed by California woman as a proposed class-action lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court. It seeks partial refunds on behalf of anyone who bought the Smucker’s spread in the past four years.

According to the Center study and the lawsuits, Smucker’s strawberry version of the product contains only 30 percent actual strawberries, while the blueberry spread contains just 43 percent blueberries. Federal law requires that fruit preserves contain 47 percent of the actual fruit. The lawsuit alleges that much of the ingredients of Smucker’s spreads is syrup made from the juices of other fruits, including apple, lemon and pineapple.

The basis of the suits may seem contradictory on the surface. After all, the fruit juices do come from fruit and the spreads aren’t named “Simply 100 Percent Strawberries” or “Simply 100 Percent Blueberries.” Nevertheless, it does highlight how careful companies need to be in choosing a name and making product claims.

Under most laws, proof of actual deception isn’t necessary to make a case of deceptive trade practices stand up in court. An advertisement, label, brochure or other statement that may lead to deception can be a violation.

In these cases, technically, the fruit spreads are made entirely from fruit, as the name suggests. But the name could lead consumers to believe the spreads are made entirely of the type of fruit displayed on the label when at least one study indicates that they are not.

The Lesson: If you want to avoid litigation, don’t try to gild the lily when naming products. Consult with your attorney to ensure product labels are within federal and state guidelines.